Africa’s largest trading bloc, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, is set to get even bigger in June with the admission of Somalia and Tunisia, increasing its membership to 21 countries.
The addition of two countries comes just after the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Kigali in March. The AfCFTA aims to break down trade barriers across the continent.
Officials told The EastAfrican that Somalia and Tunisia will join “after having fulfilled the terms and conditions of accession” to the Comesa Treaty.
Article 4 of the Treaty provides that the bloc’s highest organ — the Comesa Authority — may admit a country that is an immediate neighbour of a member state upon fulfilling conditions set forth, including acceptance of the aims and objectives, compliance with the general undertakings and fundamental principles and wishing to co-operate with Comesa.
The two countries’ admission will end years of knocking on the doors of Comesa — currently a 490-million people market. The inclusion of Somalia and Tunisia will increase the population to over 516 million people — just under half of the continent’s population.
Trade experts say the AfCFTA still has a long way before it can compete with the agility, ease and seamlessness of regional blocs like Comesa and the East African Community.
“The AfCFTA is positive, but it should not be overestimated. It’s a complement, not a substitute,” said Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organisation.
Tunisia had applied for Comesa observer status in 2005, but its application was neither discussed nor endorsed by the member states.
In February 2016, the North African nation with a population of 11.6 million renewed its push to formally join the bloc when it wrote to Comesa Secretary General Sindiso Ngwenya.
In his response, Mr Ngwenya said that under Article 1(4) of the Comesa Treaty, Tunisia was eligible for admission as “an immediate neighbour of a member state of Comesa … upon fulfilling conditions that may be determined by the Comesa Authority”.
Tunisia is an immediate neighbour of Libya, a Comesa member state.
For Somalia, with a population of 15.1 million, admission involved having to navigate legal and international relations hurdles.
In a June 8, 2016 letter, Somalia made a case for its admission arguing that it was a full member of the Preferential Trade Area (PTA), the precursor to Comesa, which changed its name in 1994.
However, officials said that when PTA became Comesa, Somalia was a signatory and full member of the bloc, but it failed to negotiate this transition due to lack of a government as the civil war had engulfed the country in 1991 after the overthrow of then president Siad Barre.
But there was still a legal jungle in international relations for Somalia to navigate: When it was a member of PTA, the Horn of Africa country was referred to as the Somali Democratic Republic as opposed to its present formal name, the Federal Republic of Somalia.
In October 2016, during the 19th Comesa Summit in the Madagascar capital Antananarivo, the process to admit the two countries gathered pace when it was agreed that the bloc enters into negotiations to test their credentials to accede to the bloc’s treaty.
In the intervening period, delegations to Mogadishu and Tunis say the two countries’ governments are ready to join and implement Comesa’s programmes.
In March last year, Tunisian Prime Minister Yousef Achahed announced his country’s readiness to join Comesa’s financial, technical, semi-autonomous and autonomous institutions.
However, questions remain as to the overriding factors for the country joining Comesa considering that of all its top five trade partners, none is a Comesa member.
Tunisia’s top export destinations are France, Italy, Germany, Algeria and Spain, while leading import origins are France, Italy, Germany, China and Turkey.
Comesa launched its Free Trade Area in 2000, and according to the bloc’s director of Trade, Customs and Monetary Affairs Francis Mangeni, the FTA “has been functioning successfully, and after June this year, will go paperless with the launch of its digital FTA” – a first on the continent.